Public funding to political parties in Turkey

Looking at the June 2011 election results, the announced reform of reducing the limit for state funding to political parties to 3 percent from the current 7 percent rule would mean nothing in practice. Because no party in the last parliamentary election was able to secure 3 percent of the total votes cast with the exception of the three big parties — the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and the junior opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which exceeded not only the funding threshold but also the 10 percent national threshold to enter Parliament.

The only party that can get state funding next time around is the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), if it decides to run as a party rather than fielding independent candidates in each district in predominantly Kurdish regions.

Among other smaller parties, the Felicity Party (SP), an Islamist party of the late Necmettin Erbakan, who was a kind of mentor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, received the biggest percentage — 1.3 percent of the votes — in the 2011 elections. My sources inside the SP told me that the AK Party in fact promised the SP leadership to drop the percentage to 1 percent to be eligible for state funding. Erdoğan’s announcement came as quite a shock to them because the SP has been struggling to finance its operations in the past couple of years.

As a result of merely a symbolic gesture, I suppose Erdoğan was trying to prevent the state from providing a lifeline to possible challengers to his rule in the future and thwart possible contenders from peeling away supporters of the AK Party. Although state funding for political parties has certain advantages over private fundraising or donor systems, the Treasury aid has recently resulted in a few selections offered in the political landscape in Turkey.

The practice has really taken a toll on the diversity, plurality and vibrancy of political parties. For example, on the eve of the 1999 general election, six political parties (including one that was not represented in Parliament) of the 21 parties that fielded candidates received state funding. In the last election, only three parties (none from outside Parliament) out of 15 parties received funding. The pattern should be alarming for the vitality of the Turkish democratic system.

The argument that public funding for campaigns limited the effect of spoilers like special interest lobbies or wealthy individual or corporate donors in Turkey does not hold much water, either. Rather, fattening established parties with taxpayers’ money attracted more money from interest groups or corporate money because they are the ones who have a say in shaping and deciding the legislative agenda or public contracts that corporate customers have a keen interest in.

The legal framework for state funding was explained in both the Constitution and the law, although there are ways to circumvent rules in a country where the unregistered economy and cash-based transactions still represent a significant portion of the national economy. Article 68 of the Constitution states that “the State shall grant political parties sufficient and equitable funding,” but lets the law limit how this money is distributed.

The state funding is governed by Law 2820 on political parties, which stipulates the political parties represented in Parliament receive cash assistance in proportion to the number of seats held. Political parties that are not represented in Parliament are also entitled to this assistance, provided that they obtained at least 7 percent of the votes cast in the preceding election. The overall amount of state funding corresponds to 2/5000ths (0.04 percent) of its general budget.

In nominal figures, the state aid equals TL 145.2 million ($73 million) in 2013 entitlements. The AK Party gets the lion’s share of this funding, which is TL 81.5 million. Both the CHP and the MHP get TL 42.5 million and TL 21.3 million, respectively. On top of this, funding provided to political parties is tripled in a parliamentary election year and doubled in a municipal election year.

That renders 11.20 percent of voters (corresponding to 4.8 million voters) who supported parties other than the big three based on the last election results as not being financed by state subsidies because their choice of parties did not pass the 7 percent threshold to be eligible for funding. This has definitely given an unfair advantage to political parties that exceeded the set threshold while muzzling dissenting opinions of smaller parties in political life.

The system also does not allow a new party to receive a fair opportunity to compete with existing parties. Prior to 2005, a new party was able to receive funding from the state if it had three parliamentary deputies as members from that party. The AK Party canceled that provision with a legislative amendment when some AK Party deputies, including a former minister, resigned from the AK Party to join the Motherland Party (ANAVATAN) and established the ANAVATAN parliamentary group.

The AK Party government made the change in order to cut funding for defectors from the party. There was nothing in the reform package that indicated a possible reinstatement of that provision. Perhaps Erdoğan is still very worried over possible defectors in the future, considering some 70 of his deputies will be forced to take a leave of absence from politics as they are about to fulfill the maximum three-term rule.

I suppose the government is also motivated by a desire to improve its image abroad by dropping the threshold for state funding. Among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (CoE), the 7 percent threshold is the highest one to receive state funding, while for the rest of European countries the minimum share of the votes a political party must obtain in order to qualify for public funding varies between 0.5 percent and 5 percent of the votes cast in the preceding election.

Although the restrictions on state funding have been unsuccessfully challenged in Turkish courts as well as in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it may not survive future challenges. That is because the government narrowly won cases contesting the legality of the high threshold in the Turkish Constitutional Court in 2008 by six-to-five and in the ECtHR by five-to-two in the case of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) vs. Turkey, ruled on in 2012.

The Turkish system also does not measure up to the guidelines adopted by the CoE’s Venice Commission as well as by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission (ODIHR) in 2010. Being a member in both pan-European organizations, Turkey needed to revise rules for state funding to political parties.

On Monday, the government took a step to address that partially and ought to follow up on that with bolder measures because these guidelines focus on the principle of equal opportunity, thus strengthening political pluralism and helping to ensure the proper functioning of democratic institutions. They warn against few parties monopolizing the receipt of public funding while urging member states to put in place “review mechanisms aimed at periodically determining the impact of current public financing.”

In the Turkish case, the impact was halving the number of political parties that were eligible for state funding. It is clear that something wrong was being perpetrated here as the law proved to be detrimental to political pluralism and the opportunities of small political parties.

Surely, no government can afford doing away with the minimum requirements for parties to start receiving public money. If no criteria for a minimum level were set, we would see a significant surge in the number of political parties and candidates that are only interested in state funding rather than expressing public viewpoints in politics and government.

In the Turkish case, it is good to finally have a reduced threshold, but this reform proposal should be bolstered with safeguard measures to encourage the formation of new parties for the sake of maintaining pluralism and diversity in Turkish democracy.

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